Reprinted from 3.21: Canada's Down Syndrome Magazine (Issue #4: The Back to School Issue). Click here to download the full magazine.
Sending your child with Down syndrome to school can bring up scary thoughts: Will they make friends? How will they manage the work? What if they need help? But your family need not go it alone; you have your child’s teacher and the school support staff as your greatest allies. The key is to build a rapport with school educators early – even before September – and to maintain these relationships throughout the school year.
Set up an Introductory Meeting
If this is your child’s first time at school, ask the principal to set up a meeting in late August with your child’s teacher or have a community facilitator (who may have supported your child in a daycare setting) help organize this meeting. The purpose of an early gathering is to give your child a chance to see where they will be going and meet the teacher as well as the support staff who will be working with your child. Ideally, this meeting should happen every year before school starts, but if it doesn’t, plan for as early in the school year as possible. The key is that you, as the parent, are given the opportunity to discuss your child’s strengths, challenges and any safety concerns.
Create an 'About Me'
When your child is new to a school, a useful strategy that helps guide the introductory meeting is to create an 'About Me.' This document, a few pages in length, includes contact information, the child’s educational and personal strengths and challenges (lead with strengths), their likes/dislikes, any medical history or information staff should know that may impact learning and, perhaps most important, any safety concerns you may have, such as: flight risks, toileting needs, feeding concerns, and difficulty with executive control/decision-making that may lead to other dangers. While educational goals are certainly important and should never be discounted – your child has a legal right to receive the support they need to be able to learn alongside their peers – it is often their safety needs that will guarantee the support of another adult, and so safety needs must be stressed.
Be sure to also include an adorable photo in your ‘About Me.’ Together, all these pieces help to paint your child as the whole, lovely person they are, and your child’s teacher will greatly appreciate the effort you have put into helping them get to know their future student better. Remember: you know your child best and you are your child’s expert. Feel free to brag!
During the meeting, after the ‘About Me,’ ask the teacher (as politely as possible), “Have you ever taught a student with Down syndrome before?” Their answer helps you to internally gauge their level of knowledge about Down syndrome and their experience working with children with disabilities. As a parent, this information helps you to be able to support the teacher as well as possible. Contrary to what you might expect, educators are taught very little about how to meet the needs of children with disabilities in teacher’s college. Share the link to the wonderful Educator’s Package, available in English and French through the Canadian Down Syndrome Society. You can also provide the handy Quick Guide to Down Syndrome for Parents, which you’ll find at the end of this article, as a resource that can be given to the other parents in the class.
If a teacher has never taught a student with Down syndrome before – and even if they have – offering resources and being a sounding board for their questions about your child can be helpful and reassuring. Talking about Down syndrome provides an excellent opportunity to dispel any stereotypes that may come up, and to present your child as an individual with their own distinct personality.
Show Your Involvement
In discussing Down syndrome, take a moment to share your family’s involvement in the Down syndrome community. If you’re a volunteer with your local association, or involved with CDSS or DSRF, this is a good time to mention that involvement. Do you volunteer on a board or committee? Perhaps you participate in a Go21 fundraiser, Run Up for Down Syndrome, or other Down syndrome related event? This is all worth mentioning because perhaps your teacher or school would like to support you in your efforts in some way.
Mention World Down Syndrome Day (3/21) and Canada’s Down Syndrome Week (November 1–7) and see if your child’s class or school might be interested in celebrating. Introducing these events is not only an invitation to your child’s educator to join you in your advocacy work, but also sets the tone that you are your child’s advocate with high expectations. When parents show they are involved – in whatever form that may take – and clearly love their child, this elicits strong feelings from the teacher to act the same way. Teachers are naturally caring individuals, and it helps to build a bridge when you show that you are too.
Would you be willing to come in to read a book or talk to your child’s class or school about Down syndrome? The intro meeting is a great time to bring this up. If you are comfortable talking about Down syndrome, or know someone in the Down syndrome community who would be, this is an excellent resource for your child’s class and/or school that requires little effort on the teacher’s part and helps educate other students and staff about Down syndrome – win/win.
Establish a method of communication that works for you and your child’s teacher from the start. Some families choose a daily communication book, and this may be something your child’s educational assistant (EA) – or equivalent in your area – may complete. There are ready-made templates available online if your school doesn’t already have something in place. Find what will work for you and your child’s teacher. You don’t want to be creating a make-work project; the goal is for the exchange, whether daily or as needed, to be meaningful and informative.
In addition to written communication, request regular in-person meetings and suggest a schedule, such as two weeks after the initial meeting followed by a monthly check-in. Setting a regular meeting time (e.g. the 1st Monday of the month) is a reasonable request, keeping in mind these meetings are meant to be short updates that allow the teacher and parent to share successes, ask questions and bring up any concerns. These meetings can happen in the fifteen minutes before the bell rings as you drop the kids off at school. They are not meant to be lengthy or time consuming – that’s a different type of meeting that should be scheduled as needed. A key point when communicating with your child’s teacher and educational team is to focus on the positives: how can a challenge be reframed as an opportunity for growth and learning?
Stay in Touch
Throughout the school year, keep the teacher updated on your child’s home life as well. If you go apple picking in the fall, for example, send in an apple for your child’s educators. Get involved with your child’s class to the extent you can. Does the teacher need a parent volunteer? As your child’s advocate, it’s important to monitor not just what the teacher says is happening, but to see with your own eyes how your child’s day actually unfolds, especially if your child is not yet able or interested in telling you. Volunteering in your child’s class, even one or two times, puts you in the middle of the action and can help clear up any questions you may have or serve as a point of conversation for later.
Set Clear Expectations
Be clear about your expectations for your child from the start of the year. Is your goal for your child to complete exams alongside their high school peers? Do you want your child to learn to read this year? Be realistic and be specific. Suggest ways you will help support these goals at home: i.e. we will help our child create study sheets or we will read three books together every night. Don’t expect the teacher to do it all.
Though it may seem obvious, remember to be grateful to your child’s teacher for their time and efforts. Celebrate special occasions with them, write a thank you note to acknowledge an extra effort made on your child’s behalf, and send in small tokens of gratitude and appreciation throughout the year, such as a child’s drawing or a fresh flower picked from your garden. These small gestures can go a long way. The more you put into building a positive relationship with the teaching staff, the more they will pour into your son or daughter.